How reverse migration can strengthen the community
Until 2020, Balaram Mahadev Bandagale from Maharashtra’s Raigad district lived in a dingy one-room accommodation in Mumbai and worked as an attendant at a local factory. The Pandemic forced Balaram to not just return to his home in Raigad, but also to his generational occupation of farming. Lack of water in Raigad only allows rain-fed paddy farming, limiting farmers’ incomes. The lack of other employment opportunities compels them to seek fortunes in nearby urban centres. But thanks to an innovative irrigation scheme (enabled by Swades), Balaram was able to break away from paddy farming to nurture a mango orchard that he is confident, will provide a comfortable life for him and his wife. The open space and cleaner air add to his quality of life. Balaram no longer wishes to return to the big city, and in fact encourages others in the community to return to more dignified lives in the village.
Balaram is one of the many ‘reverse migrants’ whose course of life was altered by the Pandemic. About 40 million migrant workers returned home due to the first lockdown (RBI Report, Sept. 2020). While the exodus exposed the vulnerability of the community, it also highlighted the potential of the rural labour force and the rural ecosystem. Following are ways in which reverse migration can benefit communities and what governments can do to facilitate its smooth transition.
While most other sectors struggled to keep afloat during the Pandemic, agriculture remained a ‘bright spot’ according to RBI, thanks to a normal monsoon, robust Kharif sowing and an influx of wage workers who came back to work on the fields as result of urban shutdown. The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare estimated, a 39 per cent increase in the geographical area sown during the Pandemic, as compared to the previous years.
The climate crisis, lack of innovation, youth’s fading interest in generational occupation etc. are a few reasons why communities are abandoning agriculture to pursue manual labor in the cities. We must work to make agriculture lucrative again, starting with leveraging agri-tech. AI-enabled technology and apps that provide end-to-end solutions such as soil-analysis, microfinance, weather forecast etc. must be made easily accessible. Governments must support FPOs/Farmer Groups that give them the agency to negotiate fair prices, secure better inputs at scale etc. Some government schemes provide platforms to farmers that allow them to directly sell to retailers, granting them higher bargaining power – as a concept we must nurture this and find ways to make it most effective.
Renews will to work:
Leaving behind open farms, a slow-paced life and cleaner air, to live in cramped homes with large groups, work long hours and undertaking arduous travel often leaves communities disillusioned by the transition. It also renews their appreciation for the more dignified life that villages offer, where one works on one’s own terms. It pushes them to either return to generational occupations or diversify into other farm and no-farm-based activities such as poultry, dairy, goat farming, kitchen gardens etc. – basically push their boundaries to make things work in the homeland.
Encourages enterprise, boosts rural income:
Exposure to the urban setting helps fine-tune entrepreneurial skills for community members that have served in the retail, hospitality sector etc. It encourages many to start small enterprises that not only sustain their families but also employ other members of the community. The collective disillusionment of city life fosters a sense of brother/sisterhood that inspires them to work as a community and look out for each other, while boosting entrepreneurship and rural income.
The communities must be trained to leverage government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Mudra (Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency) Yojana, that are curated specially to support small businesses in the rural landscape.
Migration is a healthy consequence of a globalised world. In an increasingly connected world, one must be able to seek a life of their choice while exploring the vistas that the world offers. However, forced migration due to lack of employment opportunities, education facilities and poor standards of living compels people to live substandard lives while compromising on health, hygiene, work-life balance, family and so much more.
The decision to return is not easy either – it comes with the social stigma of a failed urban endeavour. We must fight this stigma with stories of reverse migrants who have come home to flourishing lives – like Chandrakant Pawar. Chandu was a small-time farmer from Mhasla in Raigad, who worked odd jobs in Mumbai before returning to his village and taking up dairy farming programs with the support of a non-profit (Swades). Not only is he a successful dairy farmer today, but also the Sarpanch of his village in Mandathane. Not to mention, an inspiration to his community.
For the many like Chandrakant who wish to find their way back, we as governments, corporates and the social sector must create an ecosystem welcoming of the reverse migrant’s homecoming.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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